Posts Tagged ‘North Carolina’

The Post: Under the Pier – Setting as Character, Part I

March 15, 2008

I’ve seen writing books and articles that talk about “setting” as character. For some stories setting may just be the convenient place to locate a tale that could happen anywhere. Though, I have to wonder if that’s really true. I suspect on some level, setting is always a character. I have to think the author chose the particular locations for a reason, if only to give a certain emotional feeling or atmosphere to the story.

In Under the Pier, it’s a main character. I can’t imagine it taking place in California, North Carolina, or even New Jersey. There is a unique combination of influences: history-from witches to rebellion to World War II; independent Yankees who kept farming or going to sea, refusing to quit and finding innovative solutions for their problems, even though the land stinks for farming and so many died at sea; ethnic and immigrant work ethics, religion and beliefs; family ties; blue collar industrial types, and a pragmatic, no-BS attitude that sees through and hates charm and flattery. That butts head-on against Yuppie, new money, old money, universities and the intellectuals. You have the heritage of rebels like Sam Adams, abolitionists like John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and those strange independent types who would spend a year living alone on Walden’s Pond writing a book, thrust face to face with investment bankers, world politics, and cutting edge research. Where else would a large town mayor be accused of Mafia ties and the people still want to keep him in office because he revitalized the region?

The climate is difficult – as steamy and hot as the south in the summer, yet bitter cold with Artic winds in the winter. The short growing season and poor land make it difficult to earn a living farming. The sea brings nor’easters and claims fishermen as karmic payment for men daring to venture out there. And yet, they keep going.

Crammed right in each other’s faces are the poor and rich, intellectual and backwoods, new and old. The small geographical area makes it a pressure cooker because it shoves these groups right in each other’s faces. Like all places where boundaries meet, the participants cross back and forth between the two sides all the time. You can walk into a diner on a tougher side of town and have a truck driver on one side of you and a neurosurgeon on the other. People are pragmatic. If they want good diner food, they go to where they can get it and it doesn’t matter what walk of life they come from. Tough blue collar dockworkers raise sons and daughters who go to Ivy league colleges and have letters after their names like “PhD.” In fact, it’s almost an unwritten law in those harder places that you make sure your kids work hard, “get an education” and get a job where they don’t have to “do what their parents had to do to get by.” In a culture where immigrants measure progress in generations, the force and focus is always on making sure that next generation moves up a notch and has that “security” the previous generation never had.

So in looking this over, if this isn’t a character in its own right, I don’t know what is.

Under the Pier is set in one of those boundary places that straddles the worlds of commercial fishermen, dockworkers, manual laborers, and factory workers, vs the “new moneyed” rich tourists who fill their restaurants, the higher class well-educated intellectuals, and old money.

Max lives in the world of diners and auto body shops, commercial fishermen and the wharfs downtown. Her grandmother, Connie, is a widow, and has worked in Rosa’s diner all her life. It’s where she met her husband who came back from Vietnam and drove trucks for Grunder’s Moving and Storage until he died. Her grandmother’s total focus was to make sure her kids had the security and respect she didn’t have when she grew up. It’s all about prestige, money, position, getting ahead, but it’s really about security. If you have the others, the thinking is, you have the security. Connie’s youngest son is one of those who have crossed the line. He’s a post-doctoral researcher dating another PhD whose love is all those undersea critters. Her oldest daughter is a business consultant married to a successful doctor and lives in an exclusive area in Farmington CT. The biggest worry of Connie’s life was that middle daughter, Alicia, Max’s mom, who threw caution out the window, followed her artistic heart to Cape Cod, and worried her mother to death because she rejected most of her mother’s values….at least on the surface.

So the “personality” of the place, creates the personalities of the people who live there. From those personalities and the fact they’re all thrown up against each other, you get, story conflict.

Coming up next: Place as Character, Part II: Specifics of the Story’s locations and the research behind them.

The Post – Under the Pier – Research Part III: Animal R&D

March 11, 2008

For the animal side of the story, a lot of what I said about the human characters applies here. You have to decide on a protagonist, then add in one or two sidekicks and some secondary and background characters. They need personalities, backstory, lives, struggles, flaws and strengths – essentially character bios. Before I could start that process though, I had to figure out who were my main characters.

Unless your human world has people flying on magic carpets or walking on water, the rules of your characters’ behavior are pretty much established by real life. With animals, it needs to be more defined. I wanted to stay as close to reality as possible, though I was going to have the characters talk and think. Exactly what the boundaries would be for their behavior would be defined as I got more into the story.

When I initially started mapping out the story several years ago, I wanted a hermit crab with an anemone on his shell. In fact, I believe the early iterations of this book had that. I’d read that anemones and hermit crabs have a symbiotic relationship. The hermit crab carries the anemone around, thus assuring the anemone mobility and a steady food supply. The colorful, highly visible anemone offers the hermit crab some protection from predators that prefer to avoid the anemone’s stinging tentacles.

At first glance, it seemed like the perfect partnership, an underwater Batman and Robin, and I figured I was well on my way to having two of my three main animal characters. I’d even found out which anemone prefers to live on hermit crab shells: the Tricolor Anemone, alias Calliactis tricolor. (In the next post – Animal R&D cont. – I’ll share why I bother with the Latin names). In any event, I thought I was all set. Then, reality, or rather, geography, crashed in.

My story is set in New England, specifically, in the waters of Narragansett Bay. Hermit crabs with the Tricolor anemones on their shells live in the waters from North Carolina to Mexico…warmer waters.

No problem. I figured I just needed to look at the hermit crabs in New England and find out which ones had anemones on their shells, and which anemone it was. The answer to both: none. Hermit crabs in New England do not carry any anemones around on their shells. In fact, in the cold New England waters, there aren’t as many anemones even on the sea floor.

Well that shot a hole in my approach to animal character connections. My best idea for a duo against the threats of the deep and they didn’t live in New England. The closest I could come to an anemone riding a hermit crab shell in New England was something called a “snail fur hydroid.” It lacks the flash and intimidation factor of the Tricolor anemone. It’s more like this tiny lackluster matt of tentacles and polyps. In terms of effect, it’s kind of like having an earthworm when you hoped for a rattlesnake.

I was upset at first but then realized my good fortune. How much drama do you have between two characters who work well together, probably get along, and contribute pretty equally to their mutual success? Now consider being a hermit crab hauling around a thin fuzzy matt of tiny polyps – no bright colors, no flashy poisonous tentacles. Yeah, it’s got some small stinging polyps – like having a pellet gun instead of a shotgun. Are you going to feel like the hydroid is an equal partner in this situation? Maybe a little resentment there? And is the hydroid going to be very personable? Deep down it knows it’s an undersized second-rate threat, a poor substitute for an intimidating anemone. Maybe it’s going to have just a bit of an inferiority complex which means it’s going to be a royal pain to deal with? It’s going to overcompensate by being sarcastic, argumentative, insulting…and those are its good points. I suddenly realized the snail fur hydroid offered a much greater potential for conflict than an anemone.

Okay, no anemone. Just the hydroids. I thought I could at least have a large tough hermit crab. Well, forget that too. The hydroids were most likely to be on the shells of the smaller hermit crab – the long-clawed hermit crab.

So, my anemone has been shrunk to a matt of “snail fur hydroids” and my large tough hermit crab ended up as one of the smallest ones in the coastal New England waters. Yes, it’s one of the most common ones, but hardly the most dramatic, at least at first glance.

However, again, I considered conflict potential. A smaller hermit crab would have to fight harder for any shells or food or location resources. So, I went with the smaller hermit crabs.

I hoped to at least salvage the large flashy Moon Snail shell for my hermit crab, but the long-clawed hermit crab is too small to haul one of those around. Instead, I had to be satisfied with an underrate snail fur, on the outside of a tiny periwinkle or mud dog whelk shell dragged by a small hermit crab.

Do you see where this is going?

You can start out with a vision but often your vision won’t work in reality. You can give up, flip off reality, or reframe it by looking for the conflict potentials in what reality presents. I chose the last. This meant being a stickler for detail even as I might push the limits of reality on a few things. There are readers who will excuse a talking animal, but they’d never forgive a North Carolina anemone riding on a New England hermit crab.

So, at the end of all of this, I had my protagonist: the long-clawed hermit crab, Pagurus longicarpus, known in the story as “Carpus,” and the first sidekick: a snail fur hydroid. The snail fur hydroid belongs to the genus Hydractinia, so his name in the story became “Hydrac.”

I now had two characters who instead of being best friends probably had an antagonistic relationship. Since the animal side was going to mirror the same struggle as the human side: do I connect to others or run away? this seemed to match up better for the overall story structure. So I can thank the limits of geography and nature for ending up with two characters who fit the story problem better. At this point, it was time to flesh these two out with some research, add a third main character, and start adding in some other animals.

Coming up Next: Animal R&D – Picking the third main character, painting in the details and adding in the background.

The Post – Writing: Fear, Luck, or Burn the Ships?

February 5, 2008

I know I am lucky because I have a chance at a dream. I have the rare chance to write my books, my blog, do what I’ve dreamed of. There are moments though, where I’ve considered that a curse, not luck, and I suspect there are at least a few writers who share that. It’s scary.

It’s like the time my husband and I moved from CT where we were born and raised, to North Carolina, where we’ve lived now for 18 years. We’d decided we needed a different environment. Ours was killing us – between climate, work problems, cost of living, we needed a change. We checked out this “North Carolina place” and after some initial uncertainty, decided, “yes, that’s where we want to be.” It took us about a year before my husband found a job that was right. The offer even included relocation costs, something not as likely today. It was exactly what we’d dreamed of. But when the person in North Carolina called and said, “We want you for the position. If you want the job, it’s yours,” we froze.

In that moment, all the eagerness to get the job, make the move, obtain relief from the circumstances draining us and our marriage, evaporated. In that moment terror flooded both of us. The moment of truth – if you want it, it’s yours. Now came the real questions – DO we want it? CAN we do it? We thought we could, but up until that moment it was a dream, not reality. Could we really leave all we knew behind? Go to a place we’d spent one weekend in? It was the equivalent of choosing to jump off a cliff. We knew there would be no turning back if we did. Financially, it was stay or go. No changing your mind once you chose.

My husband and I looked at each other. The question hung in the air. “Well?” We recovered after a few moments, gritted our teeth and said, “It’s not getting any better here. I guess . . . we jump.” With that, we invested our whole souls to make that choice a success.

My writing dream has that same feel. Each day I watch others go off to jobs that maybe they love or hate, jobs they choose or need, and I sit here, with the opportunity to create my dream. All it takes is for me to say “yes” . . . and just do it. I feel the weight of the responsibility, and the wall of fear comes up.

Katherine Paterson spoke a bit about the fear: “With each new book we must dare failure, or worse: mediocrity.” There are the questions: What if I try for that dream and find out that what I wanted all my life, I can’t do? What if I fail? What if I try and nothing happens, or I try, and it’s downright terrible? And if it is, it will be a very open, very public failure. As Paterson also said, “Writers are very private people who run around naked in public.” No hiding the results once you put it out there.

All the years I worked at other jobs to pay the bills, take care of my son, whatever, and didn’t have the chance to try for the dream, it was easier in two ways. First, love or hate the job, I came home with a steady paycheck. No matter what, the mortgage got paid, groceries came home, the car was repaired. I had worth and value because I provided security. It came in a paycheck. Not only was my home life secure but my identity got validated as well. The paycheck gave that, too. If I wasn’t who I said I was, would they really pay me? Second, the weight of having to answer that offer from life – it’s yours if you want it – was lifted from my shoulders. Because it wasn’t an option, I didn’t have to answer. Because I didn’t have to answer, I didn’t have to find out whether I could do it or not and risk humiliation, even if that humiliation was only in my own mind. So I had financial security, value, identity, and I could escape the question I felt God was waiting for me to face.

There’s that truth that a dream is always perfect. The moment you try to pin it down in the real world, it never, ever measures up. I read an interview someone did with Billy Joel one time. He spoke of the songs he heard in his dreams, wondrous bits of heaven. Perfection. Then he woke up and tried to capture them. Now I consider him a tremendous singer and songwriter and a hell of a success, given the body of work he’s created. Yet he said that nothing he’s ever created measured up to what he heard in his dreams.

So if someone considered a success by the world, feels he’s failed, where does that leave me? His work got the financial security. He had a job title and identity validated by his paychecks. God asked him the question, “Will you create?” and Billy Joel did it. Yet he feels it didn’t measure up to his dream. What do I do? Why? And how?

I don’t know how anyone else would answer those questions. For myself, I’ve gotten some glimpses at my mortality. I only know I can’t meet God and say, “Well, I meant to, but . . .” I could get away with that answer before. I can’t now. I also couldn’t look my husband in the eye, the man whose hard work is giving me this chance, and say that. Or my son, or my friends. However, I think the absolute worst would be having to look me in the eye and say that. I think God, my husband and son, my friends, would forgive me, accept me, and who knows, God might even give me another life to try again. But would I forgive myself? Maybe that is what hell is. So why would I do it? Because I would never forgive me if I didn’t.

The question hangs before me: the job is yours if you want it. Deep in my heart, win, lose, fail, or as Katherine Paterson put it, be mediocre, I know what my answer is.

The remaining question is – How? I could say that if I’m terrible, at least I know I tried. But then maybe that’s not quite the right attitude, either. In the movie, The Empire Strikes Back, Luke tells Yoda he’ll try to lift his spaceship with his powers. Yoda immediately jumps down his throat. “NO! Do, or do not. There is no try!” Maybe the answer is that it’s how you show up to do the work that makes all the difference. It certainly made the difference in our move to North Carolina knowing there would be no option to turn back.

There’s a scene from the movie “Hunt for Red October,” that illustrates it. The captain, played by Sean Connery (who looks better and better as he gets older), is leading a select group of officers on a mission to defect and deliver a new, deadly silent Russian attack sub to the Americans. It is treason. If discovered, they’re dead and they all know it. Their consciences drive them to do this so that such destructive power cannot be used by their superiors, yet at one point their resolve fails and they want to quit. At that moment the captain tells them there is no going back. Moscow knows what they are doing because he sent a letter to their superiors stating their intentions. His men freak. In their eyes, he’s signed their death warrants for sure. They know that every ship in the Russian Navy will be out there to hunt them down and kill them. They demand to know why he did that.

His answer: “When he reached the new world, Cortez burned his ships. As a result, his men were well motivated.”

When there is no going back, you have only yourself to work with. It is “Do, or do not. There is no try.” You have only your motivations and faith, or the lack of them, to fall back on. What do you believe? When Luke could not raise his spaceship, Yoda did it for him. When Luke said he couldn’t believe it, Yoda’s answer was simple: “That, is why you fail.”

So my answer to how you do it is: Burn the ships. There is no turning back. Do or do not, there is no try. And believe. Because if you don’t, that is why you fail. I cannot control the outcome of the effort – whether my writings will be read, published, make a dime, validate me and give me value- but I can control how I do the work. And I only know that if I don’t do it, none of those things will matter.